Mr. Ed and Other Things I Learned From the Melbourne Cup

expat issues

The concept of culture has been on my mind a lot lately. I’ve been torturing Partner-in-Crime with questions of “what is my culture? Do I even have a culture??” ever since we saw Christian Lander of the blog Stuff White People Like speak at the Opera House. His point, besides being funny, is that there is a whole crop of “white people” – liberal, financially comfortable, urban 20/30-somethings (“white people” do not have to be “white” in racial makeup, only in mindset, according to Lander) who have been attempting to co-opt little pieces of every mildly exotic culture of the world in order to make up for their own lack of culture. To give you an idea, “White People” like yoga, World Cup (but not actually soccer), Banksy, and farmer’s markets.

Lander’s talk got me into all sorts of an identity crisis. I love to dabble in many of these things that Lander proposes I probably like, and moreover, I have no idea what my own authentic, non-ironic culture is. …

Interestingly, P-i-C is actually a big help because, while he lived in the U.S. for his entire adult life, he grew up elsewhere. And so, there are occasionally references that I think are universal that he just does not have. For instance: Chef Boyardee. Or, the other day, I mentioned The Munsters, which he didn’t know. I launched into a detailed explanation, followed by a long description of all the shows of early television that were re-popularized on early Nick at Night like The Adams Family and Mr. Ed. He’ll listen to me patiently and then simply declare, “that is your culture.”

OK, but I don’t really want for Mr. Ed to be my culture!



Well, being removed from my own country does occasionally give me a glimpse into what exactly makes up culture. I saw a great piece of Australian culture yesterday, and I it gave me an insight into my own culture, as well.


Yesterday was the Melbourne Cup.


The Melbourne Cup is a horse race. A big-big-big deal horse race. Now, we do have the Kentucky Derby, but this is so far beyond that. I’d started seeing signs in pubs and bars for Melbourne Cup parties over a month ago. Travel websites featured Melbourne Cup travel packages. Then I learned that many people in Sydney got half a day off of work for Melbourne Cup. And, in fact, in Victoria (where Melbourne is located) it is a state holiday. People who never gamble will place bets on the Melbourne Cup. The biggest thing about The Melbourne Cup is for everyone in the country to get really dressed up, go to bars, drink all day, watch the races, and drink some more.


Guys wear linen suits. Ladies go all out in lovely dresses and, most importantly, the hats and fascinators.




Now, this makes sense to me to dress this way if you’re actually going to the race, but everyone dresses like this to just go to their regular pub (hotel) – the same place where they went in jeans last weekend.


Truly, everything about the Melbourne Cup is a puzzle to me. How does a whole country care this much about horse racing? How do companies justify stopping work for this frivolity? How is it that everyone agrees on the dress code? This brings me back to my revelation about culture. This holiday is not my culture, and even if I start getting dressed up for Melbourne Cup parties every year (I do love a good fascinator!), it is never going to make much sense to me or be my culture. It is, however, Australian culture, and it makes no difference whether or not I understand it.


As P-i-C and I walked home from the movies last night, we passed so many Melbourne Cup revelers. I was reminded of the year that my brother came to visit me in New York for Thanksgiving. We got up at an insane hour to go to the Macy’s Parade (culture) and then wandered the city while we waited for the hour of our dinner reservation. It was a rainy day and we popped into a McDonald’s because it was one of the only places open. McDonald’s was packed with families and couples who seemed to be completely nonplussed by the fact that it was Thanksgiving. A little part of me thought that it seemed odd that there were so many families, even immigrant families, who were not celebrating what seemed to me to be the most inclusive holiday imaginable.


Last night I realized that the people who are at McDonald’s on Thanksgiving are just the same as the people (us) who are at the cinema watching The Social Network on Melbourne Cup night … people for whom the holiday has no emotional resonance.


And it is at that point that I know that, whether I want it to be or not, my culture is inclusive of Thanksgiving. The Fourth of July. The Super Bowl. The Academy Awards. Presidential inaugurations. Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash – and yes, Chef Boyardee and Mr. Ed. My culture is comprised of the things about which I share a vocabulary with my countrymen and have a sometimes inexplicable emotional impact. I can sample from other cultures as much as I want, but I can never co-opt someone else’s culture. It’s a complex revelation for an expat – I’m happy to know that I do have a culture, but also a little conflicted to know that I will never really understand the Melbourne Cup.


3 thoughts on “Mr. Ed and Other Things I Learned From the Melbourne Cup

  1. mental mosaic

    One thing I enjoy about traveling, is that it makes me mentally bump into my own culture in ways I don’t expect: as in you trying to explain The Munsters! I feel like a cultural mutt of sorts, not like some people I’ve met who have such clearly defined borders to theirs.

    Btw, I found you via the NaBloPoMo blog roll. I’ll keep popping by to see how your month is going. Nice to meet you! 🙂


  2. C. In Oz

    Thanks for “checking in” on me … knowing that other people are reading is certainly a motivator to keep going!
    And, yes, it was amazing how passionate I got explaining The Munsters, of all things. Maybe we don’t ever know how a part of us our cultural references are if we’re immersed in our own culture and don’t ever have to see it from the outside.

Comments are closed.